Omar hails from Lamu, a conservative region near the border with Somalia, best known for its preserved Swahili culture and a UNESCO heritage site.
“If we want to address the challenges we face as women, youth and indigenous communities, we have to take up the political fight as well,” she tells CNN.
The 39-year-old is the first female candidate of the coastal prefecture for the top position. She is among a record number of women running for office in Kenya’s August 9 general election.
He says he is running for office as a natural progression after seven years of providing “bandage solutions” for poor health care.
“Being able to really dig our teeth into the root causes of agricultural challenges is what definitely got us into politics,” says Omar.
But this election could be different.
“Kenya is ready for women at all levels”
If opposition leader Raila Odinga wins, Kenya could have its first female vice president in 64-year-old Martha Karua.
When she ran for president alone in 2013, Karua garnered less than 1% of the vote, finishing sixth behind five men.
In the 25 years since a woman ran for Kenya’s presidency, this is the closest she has come to the top.
Karua questions whether Kenya is ready for a female president like neighboring Tanzania.
“This question suggests that women should not be on the ballot, because I have never had any doubts about whether Kenyans are ready for one more man. So this question itself is discriminatory,” the former minister tells CNN Justice of Kenya.
“I think Kenya is ready for women at all levels.”
Her candidacy has energized the Odinga campaign and excited many women, some of whom have compared her to US Vice President Kamala Harris.
In her three decades in Kenyan politics, Karua has earned a reputation as a principled politician and the nickname “the Iron Lady” — an epithet she hates.
“This name speaks to the misogyny within society. Power is not perceived as female, power as male,” Karua tells CNN, noting that it was first used to describe former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who came to power in 1979.
“It speaks to the misogyny and patriarchy that rules the world,” she says.
“Systematic exclusion of women”
Although the number of women entering Kenya’s political sphere has increased over the years, only 23% of seats were held by women in the last parliament. This includes the Women Representative seats reserved exclusively for them — 47 seats out of 349 are currently reserved for women for this position.
“We’re seeing more and more women running, which tells us there’s never been a problem for women wanting to be in politics,” says Marilyn Kamuru, a lawyer and author on women in politics. “The systematic exclusion of women continues to be a problem.”
That exemption includes financial barriers to competing in notoriously expensive campaigns that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and routine violence against women running for office and even those already serving. For example, in 2019, a Kenyan MP was arrested for allegedly slapping a colleague and calling her name.
“It freezes the environment for women, it makes women rethink, hold back” and consider running for lower positions or abandoning their campaigns altogether, Kamuru says.
“We had a big, scary character assassination, to the point of discrediting the work we did with Safari Doctors, but we try not to let that distract us,” says Omar.
She deplores the propaganda used against her in the race, including taboo accusations such as being an LGBT “recruiter” or drug dealer to derail her campaign.
“There are some cultures that don’t even give women the right to hold their voter cards, so you need a man’s permission,” Amdany said. She added that negotiated situations where seniors decide who will run for office also affect women and are “more common than you might think.”
Despite roadblocks to political office, Kenyan women persevere. “As long as we remain non-negotiable players, the system should accommodate us,” Kamuru said.
A long shot campaign
While everyone CNN spoke to in Lamu knew she was running, some men felt she was punching above her weight and should run for the less powerful County-wide Woman MP position.
But 24-year-old Constance Kadzo, owner of a small grocery stall, told CNN she was inspired to see a native Swahili running for a top job.
“I’m voting for her because she’s the only woman brave enough to stand up to men and I know she’ll fight for us.”